Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits

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9781582435237: Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits

In 1989, Bill Porter, having spent much of his life studying and translating Chinese religious and philosophical texts, began to wonder if the Buddhist hermit tradition still existed in China. At the time, it was believed that the Cultural Revolution had dealt a lethal blow to all religions in China, destroying countless temples and shrines, and forcibly returning thousands of monks and nuns to a lay life.

But when Porter travels to the Chungnan mountains the historical refuge of ancient hermits he discovers that the hermit tradition is very much alive, as dozens of monks and nuns continue to lead solitary lives in quiet contemplation of their faith deep in the mountains.

Part travelogue, part history, part sociology, and part religious study, this record of extraordinary journeys to an unknown China sheds light on a phenomenon unparalleled in the West. Porter’s discovery is more than a revelation, and uncovers the glimmer of hope for the future of religion in China.

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Review:

From 1966 to 1976 the malevolent rage of the Chinese Cultural Revolution struck a devastating blow to all religions in China, destroying countless temples and shrines that had stood for centuries and forcibly returning thousands of monks and nuns to lay life. Bill Porter had been told that the venerable hermetic tradition in China had also succumbed, but he went looking anyway. What he found, Taoist and Buddhist monks and nuns living in huts and caves deep in the mountains of central China, is more than a revelation, it is a glimmer of hope for the future of religion in China.

From Kirkus Reviews:

Porter, who as ``Red Pine'' has written several studies of Eastern religions (The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma, 1989, etc.-- not reviewed), now clambers over the Chugnan mountains of central China in search of solitary mystics and saints. The author sets out in the spring of 1989 with photographer Steven Johnson, and immediately runs up against Beijing's official line that hermits no longer exist in China. But of course they do, and by bumping from mountain to mountain and knocking on one monastery door after another, Porter ferrets out nearly two dozen examples of what he calls ``the happiest and wisest people in China.'' Some readers may balk at Porter's description, for while a number of the hermits--mostly elderly Buddhist monks, though a few are nuns, young, or Taoist--radiate bliss, others talk of loneliness or sorrow. And while some offer simple truths (``If you don't practice, you achieve nothing''), others bat away Porter's questions (`` `What sort of practice do you do?'... Chi-Ch'eng: `I just pass the time' ''), or slip from truth to truism (``If someone is drowning and you can't swim, it doesn't do any good to jump in yourself''). But this matters little, since the hermits are charming and, in any case, the bulk of Porter's narrative consists not of hermit-chat but of a loose blend of history and travelogue. Porter unfolds a dizzying panorama of cliffs and valleys, crumbling monasteries and canny abbots, all the while discoursing on the rise of Taoism, its encounter with Buddhism, the lives of past hermits, the outlines of Tantra. Lessons emerge: the value of silence; the need to balance inner practice with community service; the differing aims of hermits, with some of them questing after immortality, others seeking escape from illusion. As travelogue/history, cluttered; as ethnographic resource, unique--and as for those hermits, they're the salt of the earth. (Thirty-three b&w photographs) -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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